Are you a chile person? Do you like a little zip of chile-induced heat?
I recently read that studies show a correlation between preference for spicy food and risk-taking personalities. I’ve also read that people who enjoy taking risks may be more content and satisfied with their lives. Ergo, eating chiles leads to happiness 🙂
Okay, clearly not a direct correlation by any means. However, I love that endorphin rush you get after eating spicy food and the subsequent feeling of mellow happiness from the release of neurotransmitters in your brain (like a runner’s high, but in this case a “chile high”)…
Whenever I go to Chinatown [in Chicago] for dinner, one of the things I really enjoy is the complimentary chile oil (Is it chile or chili? I never know which spelling is correct; I’m going with chile with an “e.”). Either way, this chile oil is highly addictive.
When you hear the word chile, you might reflexively conclude that this oil packs a punch. But it’s not about the heat. Rather, it’s all about the flavor. What really stands out is the toastiness of the oil.
This chile oil recipe is adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking. Dunlop’s recipe calls for chao tian jiao peppers, the definitive chile of Sichauan cooking. Chao tian jiao peppers are also known as “facing heaven chiles” due to the fact that the chiles grow upwards facing the sky — towards heaven if you will.
The chao tian jiao chile is a bit rounder and shorter compared to the long and slender dried red Asian chiles you commonly see. It has a medium heat level (a 5 or 6 on a scale from 1-10) and citrusy undertones.
It took a bit of searching to procure these rather elusive chiles (which made me even more determined to track them down), but with a little persistence, I eventually found them. I got the scoop on their whereabouts after a recent visit to Chicago, and my new favorite restaurant — Fat Rice. The restaurant owner/chef of Fat Rice directed me to this grocery store in the Chinatown neighborhood of Chicago. Bingo, exactly what I was looking for. The package says Gan Jai Jiao chili peppers, so alternative spellings are definitely out there.
You can substitute with other types of dried Asian chiles, but depending on the chile, your oil may pack too much heat. In that case, you may want to discard some of the seeds, since the seeds are where most of the heat is found.
The key to this chile oil is briefly frying the chiles in a little oil to impart those nice toasty notes. No more than a minute or so, otherwise the chiles will burn and impart an unpleasant bitterness. I’ve tried grinding the chiles (without frying) and pouring hot oil over the top, as some recipes suggest, but this method falls short on flavor, lacking those toasty notes.
In addition to the facing heaven chiles, the oil is infused with fresh garlic and ginger. I also like to add a few star anise, which lend anise/licorice notes.
This oil is great for drizzling over noodle dishes, sauteed greens, stir fries, dumplings, or just about anything that needs a gustatory wake-up call.
Sichuan Red Chile Oil
Adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking
1 cup peanut/vegetable oil
1 cup whole dried red chiles (preferably facing heaven chiles), snipped in half
4 garlic cloves, smashed with the side of a knife
small piece of ginger (~ 1/2-inch piece), with peel, smashed with the side of a knife
2 star anise
Sea salt to taste
Heat a wok over medium-high heat. When hot, add 1 tablespoon oil and the chiles (and their seeds). Saute about 45 seconds to 1 minute, until the chiles are toasted but not browned (being careful not to let them burn). Add the chiles and their seeds to a food processor. Process until the chiles are broken down into small pieces. Transfer to a small bowl.
Add the remaining oil to the wok. Add the garlic and ginger, and saute a minute or two. Remove from the heat and let cool about 10 minutes. Remove the ginger and garlic. Pour the oil over the chiles, add the star anise (can add a few of the garlic cloves if you wish), season with salt, and stir briefly. Let marinate a day in the refrigerator to develop a more intense flavor.
Let come to room temperature before using.